February 7, 2012

Pilgrimage To India, Defining The Kumbha Mela: A Discussion With Shelly Craigo.

Is it possible to invoke the travelers spirit through your computer? Yes, yes it is. Listening to Shelly Craigo, Special Projects Coordinator for the Himalayan Institute, speak with such love about the Kumbha Mela was nothing short of goosebump raising and thought provoking. I was no longer a person sitting in front of a screen but I was instead walking through the foothills of India with millions of other people on a quest to rebalance the earths energies and find this immortal amrit, this divine nectar of immortality.

I’m a sucker for history anyway. India’s epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata are awe inspiring. The tale of the Kumbha Mela is no different and the imagery in my mind while listening to Shelly talk touched the deepest places in my heart. Like she says, you may not have all the answers regarding why you should take this 40 day pilgrimage, you just know you need to go. Show up, the rest will unfold.

Jessica Durivage: A lot of people don’t know what the Kumbha Mela is so I want to share a little bit about what it is. The word Kumbha means vessel or container and it referrs to the vessel that holds the elixir of life, the sap of immortality. The time and the place that holds this force is called the Kumbha Mela. How did this event begin, and do you think that people gather around the Ganges for the same reason they did five thousand years ago?

Shelly Craigo: I think you’ve just hit the epitome of the whole situation. Definitely people gather for the same reason they did five thousand years ago. Yet there is something about this event, Kumbha Mela that really escapes definition. People are really drawn to this. There are people I have talked to who will say to me, “I’m really not sure why I’m going I just know I need to go and I will be there”.


Think about social media and any kind of marketing frankly these days and how much effort it takes to get the word out. Once the word is out think about how much effort it takes to keep it moving, to keep reaching people. It’s continuous effort, and yet here is this event called the Kumbha Mela that’s been happening every twelve years for five thousand years. It continually shows an attendance of seventy million people over forty days. Seventy million people is what the Kumbha Mela saw in 2001 which was called the Maha Kumbah Mela. Maha means great. That Mela happens ever one hundred and forty four years. Now what we’re heading toward in 2013 is the Kumbha Mela that happens every twelve years.

The difference would be the level of spiritual charge. The intensity or the quality of the energy that is awakening at that time. Which from my perspective is not noticeable. These energies are so profound that whether we are attending the one that happens every 144 years or the one that happens every 12 it’s phenomenal and it’s most likely beyond our scope of receptivity. In other words we will be affected whether we’re aware of it or not and to what extent we’ll not likely know for lifetimes. So yes, 70 million people for 2001 and I’m not going to mention the number of millions for 2013 lest it discourage anyone.We never see that many people at once and on our pilgrimage we stay on our private campus.

Your question originally was why does this keep happening and what’s really going on. There’s got to be something that’s happening more internally, more subtly, more profoundly than marketing that continues to bring this many people to this place at these times. That’s the profundity called the Kumbha Mela. There is something that is happening inside one’s mind and heart that calls you to something that’s called the Kumbha Mela.

You asked about the origin. Five thousand years ago there’s a story that some call mythology bu some say really happened. The situation for humanity then was not so unlike what we are experiencing now which in a nutshell perhaps more is happening externally and even internally, originating from fear consistently rather than from love and that’s the bottom line. The humanity runs in cycles. We have our higher times and we have our lower times. We have our more truthful filled times and we have our more fear based times. We might agree that right now we’re seeing things come from fear quite regularly. This would mean strife, conflict, fear, greed, possession, anger and sorrow. All of these aspects are qualities of a fear originated way of thinking.

When humanity was at this point in time 5,000 years ago those who were guiding us, the sages, the kings, the high-minded thinkers were concerned that we might loose everything we have. We might loose all of the awareness, intelligence and consciousness that had been gained by then. If that were the case than humanity might find itself back in the stone age.. When humanity was at this critical period the decisions were what do we do to preserve, how do we bring nature back into balance? How quickly can we reconsider where we are and find a way to transform fear back into its higher place which is known as love, unconditional compassion.

There was a struggle between the light forces and the dark forces, or between that which comes from love and that which comes


from fear. In this struggle there was something that was given to humanity to bring everything back into balance and that was nectar. We also hear it called elixir, ambrosia, amrit. Think of King Arthur and that tradition. They were looking for The Fountain of Youth. None of this is unfamiliar to us. In many many cultures we are trying to do this at the same time and have been doing it since then.

So as the story goes it came from heaven, was brought down from higher realms this amrit. In the struggle between the light forces and the dark forces some of the amrit spilled to the earth and was kept there in it’s dormancy. This happened at a place where three of the holiest rivers on the planet converged.  Allahabad, the town is now what it’s known as. The convergence was of the Ganga, the Jamuna and the Saraswati rivers. The three holy rivers in India. Every twelve years there are certain astrological alignments and when these forces of nature converge and then touch the planet where the three holy rivers converge then this amrit, this immortal elixir comes to life. That’s the spiritual charge that we experience when we go to the Kumbha Mela. This energy comes to life every twelve years. People know this in their mind, they know it in their heart and then they know the story. For 5,000 years people have gone whether or not they know why they are drawn to this place. This is why we take this pilgrimage.

JD: Does this come from Vedic astrology?

SC: Oh yes. Vedic astrology, particularly when we are looking back 5,000 years ago is very broad and inclusive. Vedic as opposed to western is where you are more likely to find this story and the history. It’s profound. If we look back a bit in time you’re familiar with the Mahabharata. The epic of India. If we think about India and their history and you read you think my gosh what must it have been like then. Can you imagine having been there then.


One woman in Milwaukee asked me,”What if I’m not looking in the right direction when it happens, what if I’m in the bathroom when it goes on? I want to show up but how do I participate in everything that we’re talking about?” It’s easy, you just show up and nature will take care of the rest. It’s too profound and not too particular that we have to worry about doing it. Being in that place at that time in that energy, that vortex, that matrix, that’s what we need to do. Beyond that nature knows what to do. This is the same intelligence that keeps our heart beating, our breath flowing, that keeps our kidneys and liver functioning. It’s the same intelligence that awakens us each morning. That aspect of divinity will do what needs to be done to rebalance nature. We are the Kumbha. Each individual body is a vessel. By placing ourselves there nature can make that happen.

Diane Ferraro: As Westerners are there pieces of advice that you could give to a traveler heading over there?

SC: The most important thing in preparing is to be practical. Pack your clothes in a large hefty bag. It’s going to get into water so keep it dry. Be very very practical about what you’re doing. Surrender. Know that although you’ve got all your ducks in a row and everything practically arranged there is something else when you submit to pilgrimage that is facilitating your movement. Surrender to that and you’ll get everything that you’re looking for in between the lines. There’s a lot to keep your eye out for. There are a lot of things to cut short and not even pay attention to. Every place has it’s thing going on. The more you understand about the culture of India and the different aspects there are the easier it is to navigate. Still there is a veil. You run into bumps and bruises. Your attention should be placed on moving from mind to heart and from heart into this space and experiencing what’s going on in that charged energy.

JD: You have this amazing role of helping to organize and facilitate people to take this pilgrimage. Where did you feel called to do that? When did that happen when you felt this is my calling? You’re traveling around the country right now talking about the Kumbha Mela and I’m sure that these deep connections that you’re making with people are so profound. To be with somebody when they realize that they are being called to take this pilgrimage is amazing. When did that light spark for you?

SC: I’m a nomad at heart. All my life I’ve never really had to completely unpack to be comfortable. It’s a little bit of my nature. Actually Pandit Rajmani Tigunait who is the spiritual head of the Himalayan Institute and who is my teacher and for whom I work had asked me to start organizing the institute’s pilgirmages to India about a month after I moved to the Institute, sixteen years ago. I was a fine traveler on my own but to be responsible and create comfort for others on a trip was really not my MO at the time. I had to quickly put myself in other shoes and quickly come to understand India and the whole travel industry to really make that work. It came with great ease as does much when you’re working with the Himalayan tradition.

Each year shared more and more experience and created a little more scar tissue and got me that much wiser in terms of the ways of


India. All that culminated means that we don’t make errors and we are really seasoned. Allahabad is our sister city. That comfort is what makes me go about creating a pilgrimage comfortably. Something that you mentioned that is really important to emphasize is the fact that even though I travel around the country my intention is not to bring people to this pilgrimage rather it is to bring this pilgrimage to the people. This I know for sure.

Those who are to come already know it deep down. There are those that are to be there and nature puts that into place. Who knows how long ago that connection or that invitation was planted in our minds and hearts?  What I do is simply bring some description, a little more information and help answer questions for those that need to be there. Somebody in the audience once asked basically why they should go on this pilgrimage. Pandit answered: “You may never fully understand the way in which this pilgrimage will help you unfold. Nor may we ever understand fully in this life what it’s benefits are. We have already missed so many things that are so good for us in this lifetime just because we didn’t know about them. Don’t miss this one”. I remember that day in and day out.

What if our list of questions isn’t the right list for answering what’s happening deep down inside of us. What if this is something that is really good for us but we may not be able to cross off every question on the list. Don’t miss it. So many people already know this inside. We don’t have to know all the answers. We only have to know a few of them. Where do I show up? What do I do when I reach there? The rest will unfold.

To listen to the rest of this show please click here.


This article was lovingly assembled and transcribed by #WIMG’s Incredible Intern, Social Media Maven, and Radio Broadcast Expert Jennifer Cusano. Check out more of Jenn’s exceptionally skillful work and wordsmithery on Here Women Talk, elephant journal, and LinkedIn.

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